Missoula in the Rearview Mirror 

An exit interview with outgoing Mayor Mike Kadas

After nine years as Missoula’s mayor, Mike Kadas says it’s time—for him and the city both—to move on. Appointed in 1996 to fill out the term of Dan Kemmis, who left office to direct the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, Kadas has held a central position in Missoula’s political landscape during a transformative era. He’s watched, planned, steered and heralded as the city has increased its numbers and expanded its borders. And he’s taken part in the resultant battles over what makes for good growth and how to prioritize local government resources. It was on Kadas’ watch that Missoulians banded together to preserve some of the city’s most visible open space. And it was at his urging that the city has expanded its riverfront trail system and built new infrastructure like the California and Orange street bridges. His laid-back approach has both matched and shaped Missoula’s collective attitude about how we deal with one another.

But Kadas’ impact isn’t limited to Missoula proper. Over the last year he’s led an ongoing, five-city attempt to purchase NorthWestern Energy and transform it into a public utility.

Kadas has his detractors as well. In 2002, Kandi Matthew-Jenkins led an unsuccessful recall effort after losing her own write-in campaign bid for the mayor’s seat. Kadas’ encouragement of urban development has made him a lightning rod in the growth debates, and detractors frequently turn up at City Council meetings to comment on the mayor’s various conspiracies to ruin Missoula.

Nevertheless, most see in Kadas a competent and experienced local leader who’s poured almost a decade of his life into Missoula.

As his term ends, Kadas is looking at more than just a job change. After swearing Mayor-elect John Engen into office Jan. 3, Kadas will board a plane headed for a small, hilly Nicaraguan town, where he’ll join his family—wife Martha and sons Bowen, 12, and Carson, 9—for the next eight months. It’s time, Kadas says, for his sons to learn about a different culture, and for Kadas to reintroduce himself to family life.

So before the mayor leaves town, the Indy sat down for a conversation about where Missoula is headed, the last decade’s successes and failures, and what it’s like being mayor of the Garden City.

Indy: What’s been your favorite part of the job?

Kadas: Probably the fact that there’s always new stuff. You’re always kind of learning new issues, getting to work with new people, and so that’s always interesting and a challenge and fun. I enjoy the planning and envisioning of projects and outcomes, particularly if I can get tied actually to the outcome. I don’t like planning for planning’s sake, but if I can see that we’re going to do something with it, I like doing it. Trying to help people find common ground on issues is fun when you succeed.

Indy: Has your view of the job evolved much over the last eight years—or did you pretty much know what you were getting into?

Kadas: When I started out, my sense of things was that there had been a lot of discussion and planning and people were really eager to implement some things. And so we focused on that for a couple of years and got a number of things moving along as far as growth issues, open space issues, and kind of the constant press on our transportation system, which really ultimately ends up turning into projects, and so kind of getting projects into the pipeline and then through the pipeline. It’s amazingly slow, given the state, federal and our own bureaucracies—just all of the planning and discussion that happens and the community discussion and sometimes the fact that it’s really hard to get everyone to agree on everything and it’s really easy to file a lawsuit.

Indy: What changes have you seen in Missoula over the years, good or bad?

Kadas: On the good side, I think we’ve become more economically diverse and as a consequence I think economically stable. We’ve seen a trend toward thinking about building new neighborhoods rather than just letting it happen. I think we still have a long ways to go in that respect, but I think we think about it more now.

I think we still have pretty good civic engagement in things. We continue to show ourselves as a place where people come together to do community tasks. You know, we’re not just motivated by self-interest. We’re motivated by community interest and we do things, we donate money and our time, to make our community better. And I think that’s a great spirit and we need to celebrate that.

It’s something I think that’s been part of Missoula for a long, long time, and what worries me is I think that as cities get bigger we lose the level of personal familiarity that we have with each other in a community and that tends to erode that civic consciousness. And so I think that’s one of the huge challenges that Missoula faces and will continue to face—how do we keep getting to know each other and keep that spirit of working together alive, even if we don’t know each other as well as we used to, just because there’s so many more of us. And that has to do with building public spaces, it has to do with how we build neighborhoods—we need to make them walkable so that people are seeing each other in a personal, physical way so that the relationship between two people is because they walk past each other rather than because they drive past each other, separated by two windshields.

I think we struggle with defining what’s good—for some people, it’s the neighborhood as it is. And maybe the neighborhood as it is is a good thing. My concern all along has been, ‘well, that’s gonna change whether we like it or not so we really need to anticipate the change and try to guide it.’ It’s going to be different than it was—there’s nothing that’s not going to change; that’s not one of the options on the test.

Indy: What do you feel is the best thing you’ve been able to help accomplish for this city?

Kadas: I don’t know if I can say there’s any one best thing. There are a lot of things that I’ve been involved in that I’m really glad have taken place. I think we’ve put a lot of energy into our downtown—it’s a pretty robust place. We’ve made some real positive additions to our infrastructure, in terms of bridges both pedestrian and vehicular—you know, California Street and Orange Street, and we’re doing another one on Madison Street. Our open space program I think has been just a huge success. I really believe that we’ve gone out and preserved for the community some really important places. And we’ve had our ups and downs with learning how to manage that, but by and large I think we’ve learned quite a bit and do a reasonable job with it though we have more to learn. It’s really a huge asset to the community that I think people will in 20, 30, 100 years really thank the people who got us into the open space business in the first place.

Indy: Are there things you weren’t able to accomplish that you wish you had?

Kadas: I wish we had made more progress on the growth-related issues, particularly building quality neighborhoods and dealing with affordability, all in the same breath. I think there’s just a huge need for this community to deal with that in a better way than we’ve done. For instance the moratorium on PNCs [Planned Neighborhood Clusters] was and has been a significant mistake because what it means is that instead of getting smaller single-family homes, we’re going to get multi-family-plexes, and I think that in terms of encouraging quality neighborhoods, we’d be a lot better off if we got the smaller single-family homes, mainly because we’d get home ownership. And generally people who own their homes are gonna take better care of the home and the neighborhood than folks who are renting. And that’s no slam on renters; I think it’s just kind of how things work.

Indy: Where do you see Missoula in 20 years?

Kadas: I think it’s really hard to say. The problem is that if you ask people, they would say they want it to be just like it is today. I don’t think that answer is available. And so I don’t think there’s a firm enough understanding of how fast we are changing and how fast we’re going to continue to change. And as a consequence, there are two extremes and a whole lot of territory in between and we’re going to end up somewhere in between. I guess, ideally what I would like to see is I would like the downtown to have more people living here and a better income distribution. Right now, most of the people who live downtown are on the very poor end of things, and I think it’s important for the whole community and the downtown to have a mixture there. I would like to see the downtown grow both out and up, and I think there are projects in the works that are moving in that direction. I would also like to see a second downtown-style area happening out on Brooks Street.

And I think part of the challenge is we’re making this transition from town to city and the notion of city is really complicated—there’s lots of good things and lots of bad things and we need to be proactive about going after the good stuff. I think we can do that, but it takes leadership and guidance on the part of the city. And then it takes risk and creativity on the part of the private sector. And it’s not something the city just makes happen, or that the private sector just makes happen. It’s a partnership. And everyone’s got to understand their roles and be comfortable with creating a partnership. And I think that can happen. It has happened in a fair number of instances. There’s always a tension, which is healthy. Good things happen because of tension, but bad things can happen, too.

Indy: How come you decided not to run again?

Kadas: I think there are a number of factors. One is it was time for me for a change. You know, I get bored with doing one thing, so after a while I want to go try something else. I also think that it’s good for the community. Having a fresh face, fresh ideas and a fresh way of working with people is a good thing. It’s also the right time with my family. We’ve planned since we had kids to introduce them to another culture and another language before they got into high school and that pretty much had to be now if we were going to do it. And we’re going to do it.

Indy: Where are you going? Your family’s been there since November, but where will you join them?

Kadas: They’re in San Ramon, Nicaragua. It’s a town of two or three thousand, near Matagalpa, which is about a 100 kilometers north of Managua. It’s in hilly, coffee-growing type of country.

Indy: Why there?

Kadas: It was through a series of personal connections. We didn’t want to be in a big city, we wanted to be a little closer to the country, and able to fit into a community doing volunteer stuff relatively easily. So this met all these requirements.

Indy: How long are you going to be down there?

Kadas: We need to be home so the boys can get back in school next fall, so we intend to get back in August sometime.

Indy: Where do you see yourself down the road? Are you still interested in politics and do you see yourself being involved in public or political issues in some way in the future?

Kadas: I can’t imagine that I won’t be involved in the community in some way or another. That’s just who I am. How that happens is the part I don’t know and what I don’t want to decide right now. I want to have time to let that percolate. But the community, the place, the environment—those are all really big things for me. It’ll happen, and I’m looking forward to that.

Indy: What do you see as your legacy as mayor?

Kadas: I don’t think that is for me to see at this time. Being the mayor is like being thrown into this thing and you’re swimming the whole time, and you really don’t have a lot of time to think about perfecting your stroke, or diving deep for something. You’re just trying to make progress the whole time. Someone else can figure out what my legacy is, and I hope they wait for a while. It’s not something that needs to be decided next week.

Indy: How do you deal with people who say awful things about you, who accuse you of conspiracies both big and small? A lot of things have happened over the years, from Kandi Matthew-Jenkins’ recall campaign to other individuals who consistently bash you. How do you deal with that?

Kadas: I think I’m generally pretty comfortable in my own skin here and I don’t let that kind of stuff bug me too much. My experience is that it comes and it goes, and I try to be polite to people and hopefully I’ll set a good example for them. I’ve had a fair number of people get mad at me about one thing or another and then they’ll call back 10 minutes or 10 days later and apologize and I appreciate that. I know that we deal with things that people feel really strongly about, and we try to do our best, and I try to do my best, but I know I can’t make everybody happy all the time, so I try to listen and give as reasonable and cogent responses as I can, given the circumstances. There are some times I know that there’s nothing I can say that’s gonna make this particular person feel any better than they do, and in those situations it’s probably just best not to say anything. I think if you’re gonna do this, you have to be open to being criticized. It’s part of the territory.

Indy: Relations between City Council and the mayor have fluctuated throughout your tenure. Any thoughts on the challenges or evolution of this relationship?

Kadas: You have to remember that the system is set up to create that conflict. It’s set up so there will be a conflict between the administration and the Council and that’s the way it’s supposed to work. And the challenge is how do you manage the conflict—if you can do that civilly, everyone will end up better. You will end up with better decisions and both sides will recognize the contributions of either side and will appreciate them. If you can’t manage that civilly, and civil is a term of art, then it becomes tougher. But it’s the old saying—democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. It’s difficult when people aren’t respectful about it, but by and large people understand the need to be respectful of each other’s opinions and to try to clearly articulate their point of view and to try to understand other points of view and to understand that we have to make a decision. Lots of times, people want to vote “maybe,” and you know, that’s not a choice. That’s another kind of problem with the whole thing because oftentimes by saying maybe you’re saying no. And you just have to recognize that you have to make choices. If they were easy choices, they wouldn’t be in front of us—someone else would be making them. That’s why you have city councils and mayors elected to do things, to actually pick and choose those difficult things. And I just think we need to respect that for what it is—it’s a process for making decisions that are not easy to make.

Indy: Do you think our public process for accomplishing goals—perhaps best represented by the Monday night Council meetings—works?

Kadas: I think the Monday night meetings are a necessary step that we have to go through, but unfortunately when we get to that point, it’s not as embracing and inclusive of everyone as people would like it to be. What we try to do to counteract that is to have stakeholder meetings, charettes and those kinds of things earlier on in the process. And I think we’ve been learning that and trying to make that last step in the process, which is the Council public hearing, less difficult. Clearly, with a hearing you have to balance efficiency and the need to actually take an action with involvement. And there’s a place between those two that you have to find, and it changes depending on what the consequences are of not doing something. Sometimes you don’t have a choice—you have to make a decision. Particularly when they’re hard decisions, it’s human nature to want to push them off. And I think part of the problem is we have some Council people who pass all the time, who abstain, and it’s like, your job is to make a decision. I know it’s not easy, and you may not feel 100 percent, but you don’t get to do maybes. That’s just part of being in elected office. And that can be really frustrating to citizens or other people who feel strongly about one aspect or another, but at some point you have to make a decision. There’s a great story I heard in the Legislature one time. There’s a crusty old cowboy who’s a committee chairman and there’s this young environmentalist from Missoula. And he’s up there talking away at the committee hearing, talking and talking, and finally the chairman interrupts him and says, ‘Son, I really appreciate what you’re doing here. And your job is to talk and our job is to listen, and I just hope that you get done before we do.’ And that kind of sums it up, because at some point or another, everyone who’s sitting at that table stops listening, and it doesn’t do any good for people to go on except that it’s comforting for the people who are going on. But you have to set parameters and not everyone agrees to the same parameters. So the notion of a public hearing has its problems, no question about it.

Indy: We talked a bit about public process and how you deal with personal attacks. Do you have any thoughts on divisiveness in national politics and its impacts on the way we do things?

Kadas: When our leaders behave badly then we, of course, think we can do that as well. We have set amazingly low standards for our leaders, in terms of being civil. … And the problem in general is that the public and our citizens are so distanced from national politics that they can’t tell what the truth is. So again, citizen engagement becomes really important and part of the problem is we’re so big and the way we get our information is so indirect. One of the great things about Missoula is that we know each other. That’s also a great thing about Montana. I can go to just about anywhere in Montana and if I walked around for half an afternoon, I’d bump into somebody that I know. And that’s really a valuable thing. But at the national level, we don’t know anybody anymore and I think that’s really taking its toll on our democracy.

Indy: How does your background as an economist and a carpenter feed into your attitudes toward smart growth?

Kadas: I guess ultimately, it’s important to me for a couple of reasons. One is just an issue of justice. I really believe that everyone should have some access to being able to purchase their own home, because being able to purchase that first home, in particular, is how you save money in our culture. And it’s just such a critical piece of being a viable economic entity in our world, and being a viable economic entity in a lot of ways is one of the essentials of being able to live your life in a full way. I just think that’s one of the things that we owe to each other. The other part of it is when we build ourselves we’re setting in place this infrastructure that’s gonna be there for years. When you’re building a house it’s something that’s going to be there for a long time. Building a neighborhood, you’re creating something that’s gonna be there even longer. Now you’re talking hundreds of years instead of just decades. And so how we do that and the way we do that is really what creates community.

Indy: You’ve been very involved in bringing Montana Public Power Inc. about and encouraging the city and other areas of the state to join in. Is the issue similar to smart growth, in terms of how important it is to you?

Kadas: I think it’s a big important thing. I think it’s motivated by a very similar type of reasons and it comes largely from a background in economics. It just helps me to understand how important those commodities—natural gas and electricity—are to our communities and to ourselves and to our businesses. And also, to have this perspective of what it is to have a natural monopoly that provides an essential service. I very much believe in markets and in capitalism, and I feel I have a decent understanding of those, but that’s what informs me that natural monopolies are one of the areas where markets don’t work. And as a consequence, we have to take special care of the situation and what that means is they’re regulated heavily or we own it ourselves. It is like virtually all the other things that a city does—I mean, we’re providing public goods. They aren’t necessarily natural monopolies—public good is different from a monopoly—but it’s those kinds of things that if we do them together they cost us less than if we do them separately. Things like streets, like fire protection, police protection, parks, all those things. And electricity and natural gas falls right in there. I just see it as one of those things that in our world, as a community, we have an obligation to make sure those commodities are provided reliably and cost effectively. And it doesn’t seem to me like that’s happening and that it’s only going to get worse if we continue to allow what’s been going on. And there’s this opportunity—because they’re in bankruptcy, they’ve made themselves vulnerable. I mean, their own greed is what got them in trouble here, and because of that—because now it’s all concentrated in a relatively few number of shareholders whose only real interest is making money—that’s a language that, okay, we can communicate on that level. And if we can do that and make it a good deal for Montana, we ought to jump on it. And I’ve spent a lot of time on it because I know the opportunity is now. And it’s not an opportunity that we created; it’s an opportunity that they created.

Indy: What’s the most randomly cool thing that comes with the mayor’s gig?

Kadas: Well one cool thing was that [points to photo of himself paragliding over Missoula hanging on his office wall]. It was ’97 or ’98 and Missoula is kind of a paragliding Mecca and all these paragliders were going to be in town for this big paragliding hoopla. So some of the local organizers said, ‘Hey we think you need a different perspective on the city—how would you like a free ride?’ And what can I say? So I took them up on it and they hauled me to the top of Mount Sentinel and pushed me off the edge and it was pretty cool. I would have never gotten to do that, so that was neat.

Indy: I’m curious about your family. Are they glad you’re not going to be mayor any more? It sounds like you’re ready for a break, but what about them?

Kadas: I want to spend more time with my kids. I’ve been mayor for all but six months of my youngest son’s life, and it just means a lot of evenings not at home, a lot of breakfasts not at home, a fair number of weekend things. It’s also meant they’ve got to do some things that they wouldn’t have gotten to do otherwise, and sometimes it’s kind of cool—‘yeah, my dad’s the mayor’—and so that’s neat. But they’re 9 and 12 and they’re going to be off doing their own things shortly, and I don’t want to completely miss the opportunity to really become good friends with them.

Indy: The local government study commission is currently examining Missoula’s government. What do you think its findings should be? Some people are calling for a more professional administration, which could take the form of a city manager instead of mayor. As we grow, do you think our form of city government needs to change?

Kadas: I don’t think any major changes need to happen. I think there’s always room for fine-tuning, but going to a city manager form would really be a bad choice, I think. The other big change that could happen would be a consolidated government, but I don’t hear many people talking about that, so I don’t think that’s on the table.

We’re not in a crisis of any sort. I think we have a really stable city government that is able, in general, to do the things that it needs to do. I think the biggest problem we have is that we keep going back and forth. We make a decision and then reverse ourselves and then reverse ourselves again. We’ve done that on a number of things, and I think that’s partly why. We need to evolve to a system where once the Council makes a decision, it’s the responsibility of the administration to implement the decision. The way our system is structured right now, if we decide to go ahead with a project and there’s a close 7–5 vote on it, then what happens is we have to do a contract for the engineering and so that’s another thing that comes back for a vote. And then we have to let the bid, and that’s another vote. So essentially the Council is forced to revisit this really painful thing time and again and if anybody changes their minds, or forgets what they did last time, or isn’t there anymore and changes the balance, then we run the risk of putting on the brakes and going back and reversing ourselves. There are occasions where reversing ourselves is entirely appropriate, but we’ve set ourselves up so that we are constantly wrestling with reversing ourselves and we’re spending a lot of time doing it. It’s very inefficient and I think it also kind of denigrates the Council. So I wish we could find a way to get beyond that.

I think the government study commission can help solve that, and I also think there has to be some legislative changes accompanying it. Also, I think that as we get bigger, that will become a bigger problem. As we do more stuff, that kind of waffling becomes more prevalent and more divisive. And it just poisons people. A city council is really an institution that’s based on input and based on circumstance, but it’s also based on relationships. So the relationships between the people sitting around the table are really important, and you build those over time. And if what you’re doing over time is continually sticking each other in the ribs with the same thing that you know was painful the last time you did it, you can’t build good relationships. It’s not that we should shy away from difficult decisions. But once we’ve made them, we shouldn’t go back and keep poisoning ourselves by making them again and again. Brooks/South Russell, the Blue Heron, and West Broadway are all examples of things we did like that.

Indy: How do you feel about the new makeup of Council and John Engen’s election? Some people see his election more or less as a continuation of your tenure. Any thoughts about that?

Kadas: Well, I think philosophically John and I are relatively close, but we have really different styles and I think that will be really good. John is much more comfortable around people than I am—I’m fairly shy, a bit introverted and I really enjoy the analytical part of problem-solving but I’m not one to go up and introduce myself to everybody. And John is, and I think that’s great. It will be a nice change, and people will see a big difference early on. I’m sure he will go different places with things than I might, and that’s really good too. I don’t think there’s ever any one right way to do anything, and I think ultimately his motivations and interests are the right ones, so I’m really looking forward to watching him jump into it and seeing how he grows. I’ve been having lunch with him and trying to transfer as much knowledge as I can and he said something that just really reminded me of me when I started, and that was, ‘Wow, this is really fun!” And he’s right, it is.

Indy: Got any plans for your Monday nights now?

Kadas: [Laughing] I haven’t thought that far ahead.

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